“What is the point of this extravagant waste of perfume?”
As a people concerned about the poor, we are ever watchful to issues of stewardship. In our personal finances we are careful not to overindulge in material things, not merely because we elevate simplicity for its aesthetic value but because we choose instead to redistribute our wealth to causes which care for and empower the poor. We challenge our parishes when too much attention is given to carpets, pipe organs, and jewel encrusted chalices. We live by Mother Elizabeth Seton’s words, “The rich must live more simply, so that the poor may simply live.” And yet as if to contradict our fundamental principle comes this story of extravagance and waste.
A woman, we don’t know her name, comes to Jesus. A wealthy woman, dressed in the finest silks, she carries with her a beautiful, ornate vase. Kneeling before Jesus, she breaks open the vase and pours forth its fragrant contents upon his hot, tired feet. The perfume cools his feet and relaxes his entire being. He is carried away into an almost transcendental stupor by the cloud of its aroma. These are the last moments of peace Jesus will experience in this life.
Serenity is short lived for the disciples quickly begin to carp and criticize. They are shocked and confused. This seems to go against everything Jesus ever said or did. He claimed no home for his own. He sent forth his disciples two by two as begging preachers. From their little he always measured out a generous portion for the poor. They spent the last three years in sacrificial poverty and now, in a matter of seconds, this woman, in one indulgent act, poured away perfume worth a year’s wages.
There is something wasteful and irrational about worship. It is not practical. It seems at times irrelevant. And yet worship is vital. Jesus was enlivened by this serendipitous act. I am sure the very memory of it somehow made the weight of the cross he was to encounter in a few short hours just a bit easier to bear. As we draw our routine of service around the center of worship we too are soothed, relaxed and caught up into that incensed cloud of praise that fills the holy of holies. We too find the burden we are called to bear somehow eased.
Too often, however, we are offended by the imprudence of worship. We even question the intellectual level and emotional stability of those prone to enthusiastic display. But still you can’t stop them. The religious leaders tried to stop the cheering, palm waving crowds as Jesus processed through the streets of Jerusalem. They couldn’t stop them. Such was the joy of the moment that even if they had quieted the crowds, the stone street upon which Jesus traveled itself would have begun to sing out.
Worship can seem especially imprudent when we think of the poor. I can not fail to notice, when worshiping with Christians in developing countries, how they do without necessities so that they can purchase a special dress or handsome tie in order that they might look their best for Sunday worship. They may not have shoes for their feet but they are otherwise adorned as if they themselves are a wrapped gift to be presented to a king. The impracticality of it all comes to its height as they take up the collection. Those with so little, who could better spend their money on essentials, sing, dance, and fill the room with shouts of joy as their shillings fill the basket. It makes no sense at all.
It made no sense to Judas either, this extravagant worship which seemed out of connection to the reality of the poor. This was, in fact, the straw that broke the camel’s back for Judas. He was, if anything, concerned about justice for the poor. This is why he was chosen as the treasurer for Jesus and the disciples. It was his duty to redistribute wealth to the needy. He had growing doubts about Jesus before this perfume incident. He was restless for Jesus to lead the people in an overthrow of the state and return power to the downtrodden. Jesus had missed several good opportunities, the most recent his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Judas simply could not figure Jesus out. To Judas’ mind, by Jesus receiving this kind of luxurious attention he had gone over to the other side. He was no longer a liberator. Jesus had become part of the problem.
This story does not repudiate our concern for the poor. They are, as Jesus said, “with us always.” Nor does this story serve as an endorsement for ongoing opulence. It does, however, make place for celebration. Moreover, it serves to keep us a bit off balance. We can not, as Judas did, put God in a box. Yes, the poor are with us always and as we “work to get the numbers down” we should not forget to celebrate small victories. We should not neglect to express our love to God and restore our souls by abandoning ourselves, pouring ourselves out, wasting our time and energy in extravagant worship.
Palm/Passion Sunday Mk 11: 1-10, Is 50: 4-7, Phil 2: 6-11, Mk 14:1 -15: 47
Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz. “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.
Photo Credit: Wayne Forte “Mary’s Sacrifice” http://www.wayneforte.com